musica Dei donum

CD reviews

[I] "The Concert Français"
Taryn Fiebiga, Sara Macliverb, soprano
Ensemble Battistin

rec: Oct 17 - 18, 2004 & May 31 - June 4, 2006, New Norcia (Western Australia), Benedictine Monastery (St Ildephonsus Chapel)
ABC Classics - 476 6181 (© 2007) (66'43")

[II] "The Concert Spirituel"
Sara Macliver, sopranob
Ensemble Battistin

rec: Oct 14 - 18, 2004/Sept 29 - Oct 3, 2005 & May 31 - June 4, 2006, New Norcia (Western Australia), Benedictine Monastery (St Ildephonsus Chapel)
ABC Classics - 476 6182 (© 2007) (56'51")

[I] Nicolas BERNIER (1665-1734): Motet du très St Sacrement, motet for two high voices and bcab [2]; Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Ombre de mon amant, air for voice and bcb [5]; Vos mépris chaque jour, air for voice and bcb [5]; Pierre Danican PHILIDOR (1681-1731): Suite V for 2 treble instruments and bc in D; Jean Baptiste STUCK (BATTISTIN) (1680-1755): Les Bains de Toméry, cantata for voice, 2 violins and bca [7]

[II] Jean-Jacques-Battiste ANET (1676-1755): Sonata for violin and bc in e minor, op. 1,3 [1]; Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1699-1755): Sonata for transverse flute and violin in A, op. 51,5 [3]; Pierre-Gabriel BUFFARDIN (c1690-1768): Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in e minor; Louis-Gabriel GUILLEMAIN (1705-1770): Sonata for transverse flute, violin, bass viol and bc in b minor, op. 12,2 [4]; Jean-Joseph MOURET (1682-1738): Usquequo Domine, motet for soprano, 2 violins and bcb [6]

(Sources: [1] Anet, Premier Livre de Sonates, 1724; [2] Bernier, Motets, op. 1, 1703; [3] Boismortier, VI Sonates pour une flûte traversière et un violon par accords, op. 51, 1734; [4] Guillemain, Six sonates en quatuors ou conversations galantes et amusantes ..., op. 12, 1743; [5] Lambert, Airs à Une, II, III et IV Parties avec la Basse-Continue, 1689; [6] Mouret, Motets, 1742; [7] Philidor, 12 Suites, 1717; [8] Stuck, Cantates françoises, 3e livre, 1711

Kate Clark, transverse flute; Sophie Gent, Emily Thompson, Paul Wright, violin; Suzanne Wijsman, cello; Shaun Ng, viola da gamba; Tommie Andersson, theorbo; Stewart Smith, harpsichord, organ

These two discs are the second and third in a series of five, devoted to French music from the period of about 1690 to 1750. The titles The Concert Français and The Concert Spirituel refer to two concert series, which took place from 1725 in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The building of this palace had started in 1559 at the request of Catherine de Medici, widow of King Henri II, but it was only completed during the reign of Louis XIV. But he didn't want to live in Paris, nor did Philip II, duke of Orléans, who acted as Regent for Louis XV during his minority. Therefore the Tuileries Palace was never really used as a palace, and rented out as a place for music and theatre performances. It is here that Anne Danican Philidor founded the Concert Spirituel in 1725 and two years later the Concert Français. The former series lasted until the French Revolution in 1789, but the latter only existed for six years. In both series instrumental music was performed, but the difference was that vocal music in the Concert Spirituel was strictly religious, in the Concert Français first and foremost secular, although every concert ended with a sacred work. These two discs aim to give an impression of what concerts in these two series could be like.

The first disc, devoted to the Concert Français, opens with two so-called airs de cour, songs for solo voice with basso continuo, by Michel Lambert, which appeared in a collection published in 1689, long before the Concert Français started. I'm not sure if Lambert's airs were still performed in the next century. But, as the programme notes say, airs like these were performed at the Concert Français. As this disc also wants to show the growing influence of the Italian style in French music it makes sense to include them in the program. They are examples of the pure French style before the Italian style started to make any impact. Sara Macliver has a beautiful voice, but her performance is a bit bland, and her ornamentation is not really convincing. Some ornaments are nothing more than passing notes, but they tend to get too much emphasis.

Pierre Danican Philidor was a niece of Anne Danican, the founder of the Concert Français. They were members of a large family of musicians who were mainly active as players of wind instruments. Pierre Danican's suite played here comes from a set of 12 suites for two treble instruments, six of which with, and six without basso continuo. Here the fifth suite with basso continuo is played on transverse flute and violin, one of the options to perform music like this, as the composer hasn't specified the instruments he had in mind. It contains five movements: the first is an overture, much like the French opera overture, and ends with a chaconne, also frequently appearing in French operas at the end of an act. In the middle is a movement with the title 'Les Echos', in which phrases by the treble instruments are repeated piano. This is followed by an energetic pair of bourrées. This suite is beautifully played and well articulated, and 'Les Echos' is very elegant, but the bourrées and some passages in the other movements could be played with a little more energy and passion.

The remaining two items show the two kinds of vocal music performed at the Concert Français. In particular here we hear the influence of the Italian style. In the case of Jean-Baptiste Stuck, also known as 'Battistin', that is no surprise: he was Italian, although of German origin, and Philip II, duke of Orléans, who was a great lover of Italian music, had appointed him as cellist of his chapel. He started to write chamber cantatas in which he tried to mix elements of the French and the Italian style. Among the latter are the depiction of elements of the text in the music and contrasts in tempo. His cantata 'Les Bains de Toméry' is rather descriptive than dramatic. In the first aria the phrase "Flow, flow, fleeting waters, and you, birds, leave the woods" is eloquently illustrated in the music. This aria also shows a strong contrast in tempo between the first and the second section.
Tarin Fiebig has a nice voice, and she sings the cantata with quite a lot of expression. But I am not impressed by her diction: sometimes it is difficult to understand what she sings, and her pronunciation of French is rather suspect. In addition I find it disappointing that the modern pronunciation of French is used.

Nicolas Bernier studied in Italy, and after returning to France he held several positions and entered the Chapelle Royale in 1723. Today he is practically unknown, and if his music is performed it is mostly his secular cantatas. This motet shows his qualities as a composer of religious music. It is a motet for Holy Communion, the heart of the Roman Catholic liturgy, and Bernier has set the text with Italian passion in a sequence of solos - some of which in the form of a recitative - and duets. In particular the duets are very moving, partly due to the harmony between the two vocal parts. The two sopranos have quite different voices, but blend pretty well. Again the pronunciation of the text is disappointing: one would hope it has sunk in right now, that in French music of the baroque era the Italian pronunciation of Latin is simply wrong. But that seems not to be the case, unfortunately.

It may come as a surprise to see that the music presented under the title The Concert Spirituel is mainly instrumental. But the name of this concert series derived mainly from the fact that no secular vocal music was performed, and that the concerts took place on Sundays and religious feasts. Over the years instrumental music began to dominate the programmes, and later in the 18th century symphonies by Haydn were played and Mozart composed his 'Paris' symphony for the Concert Spirituel.

The programme is interesting because of the quality of the music and the fact that most of the pieces are hardly known. That is certainly the case with the opening item, a sonata by Jean-Jacques-Baptiste Anet. I don't think many people will ever have heard this name, but he was one of the most virtuoso violinists in the early 18th century. Virtuosity was not a quality which was in great demand in France, as the French preferred expression. Anet himself shared this view, and his sonata certainly delivers expression, in particular in the opening adagio, but in the remaining four movements there is quite a lot of virtuosity nevertheless. Interestingly he had been a pupil of Corelli, who held him in great esteem. And this sonata is unmistakeably influenced by the style of his teacher. Sophie Gent and Stewart Smith give a splendid account of this fine sonata.

Boismortier is far better known, but not always appreciated. He has the reputation of being a voluminous writer of music, which for many imply that the quality of his works must be suspect. That is not the case with the sonata performed here. It is a piece for two treble instruments without basso continuo. Boismortier composed quite a lot of pieces without basso continuo part, but often one of the instruments acts as a kind of basso continuo instrument anyway. Here it is the violin which now and then provides a bass line, supporting the transverse flute which has the lead in the proceedings. Kate Clark and Paul Wright bring the qualities of this piece convincingly to the fore.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin was a virtuoso flautist who from 1715 to 1749 played in the court chapel in Dresden, at the time one of the most famous ensembles of Europe. He was also active as a teacher, and Johann Joachim Quantz was one of his pupils. It is possible Johann Sebastian Bach has written some of his flute parts for Buffardin. It is not known how many works Buffardin has composed: only two have been preserved, one of which is the concerto played here. It is a very beautiful piece, and makes one regret that we don't have many more compositions by him. The concerto is given an engaging performance by the whole ensemble, with Kate Clark as an excellent soloist.

The fourth piece is typical for the style of around the middle of the 18th century. The subtitle of the collection of which it is part sums it up pretty well: "conversations galantes et amusantes" - galant and entertaining conversations. This was the music of the bourgeoisie which was becoming more and more important as consumers and performers of instrumental music. The performers play it accordingly: as a nice musical conversation of friends.

Even if the Concert Spirituel was dominated by instrumental music, it always ended with a sacred piece. Here it is a motet by Mouret, whose music is graceful and melodious. That is also the case here: Usquequo Domine, a setting of Psalm 12 (13), is quite different from the motet by Bernier on the first disc. The expression is more in the melody than in the harmony. There is Italian influence here as well, in particular in the coloraturas on "exaltabitur" (exalted). The instruments don't play a prominent role; they mainly support the voice. Sara Macliver gives an outstanding performance of this motet, thanks to the nice timbre of her voice and her excellent diction. Like the item on the first disc, the Latin pronunciation is off the mark, but that's not her fault.

These discs present most interesting programmes of French music of the early 18th century. As far as the first disc is concerned it is in particular the two vocal items which make me recommend it. The instrumental pieces on the second disc are generally played with more panache than the suite on the first disc. All in all there are fewer flaws on the second disc than on the first. Despite the criticisms I recommend both discs as they contain very fine music which is hardly known.

The booklets are excellent: there is a general introduction to the programme (largely the same for both discs), information about every single piece with reference to the sources, and the lyrics with an English translation. That is how booklets should be.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews